Pro or Con? In the case of Gil Sandler, there was no debate

January 09, 2019

(EDITOR'S NOTE: We have updated this story, written in 2008, as a salute to Gilbert Sandler, who died December 19, 2018 at the age of 95. The energy he devoted to fundraising for the City College Speech and Debate team was remarkable. The endowment in his name for that program stands as a memorial to his dedication.) 

Gil Sandler, lover of words, was always thinking ahead to the next chapter. He understood how story lines progress and appreciated a delightful twist to a tale. His friends had never seen him speechless—until March 30, 2008, when their generosity caught him totally by surprise.

The occasion was a celebration of Sandler’s body of work and the archiving of recordings and manuscripts from his remarkable career as a writer and storyteller. The Baltimore historian is familiar to readers of the Baltimore Sun and listeners of “Baltimore Stories” on WYPR, which co-hosted the event. Hundreds of Sandler’s friends and fans had gathered to see his work officially installed at the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

The event unfolded just as Sandler expected until one of his friends, Emil Bendit, rose to deliver some remarks on behalf of the Baltimore Community Foundation.

Fund Supports Debate

“This is a surprise for Gil,” Bendit announced. “We have established the Gilbert Sandler Fund for Speech and Debate at City College…. I am thrilled to tell you that we have already, behind Gil’s back, secured $252,000 for the fund.”

A stunned Sandler paused to take it in. With his friends’ creation of the endowed fund at BCF, one of his longtime passions had gained critical support, ensuring that students will have the opportunity to participate in the rigorous and rewarding discipline of debate for generations to come. Nothing could have pleased him more.

“Mr. Sandler enjoys the spoken word and truly believes that having strong speaking skills is a bridge to a better life,” said Patrick Daniels, director of speech and debate at Baltimore City College. “He never wants to be viewed as a funder; he wants to be considered a cheerleader. But he’s been raising money for the program for about 15 years. He meets people for breakfast and lunch and gets a handshake for $1,000 here and $1,000 there. I guess his friends finally decided, hey, let’s just give him a whole bunch at one shot.”

The City College program costs about $40,000 annually, with most of that amount  going toward trips to regional and national competitions earned by the school’s successful debaters. BCF set a goal to build the endowment to $500,000, a goal which has been far surpassed since the fund’s inception: the fund now boasts a balance of $693, 547. The fund’s assets are invested, and 5% is available each year to support the speech and debate team’s activities. 

Reviving Speech and Debate

The speech and debate team at City College has a proud tradition dating back to 1876 and the formation of two debate societies, which later merged to become the Bancroft/Carrollton-Wight Literary Society. Their activities lapsed in the late 1970s and remained dormant until Sandler—a 1941 City College graduate who, he insists, was not a particularly distinguished debater—resurrected the discipline in 1997 with support from Robert Embry and The Abell Foundation. 

“Mr. Sandler restarted the program because he believed that City College should be a place for students to express themselves beyond athletics,” Daniels says. “He thought speech and debate was one way to do it.”

More than 75 students participate each year in the primarily after-school and weekend program, which includes the popular Policy Debates, the one-on-one Lincoln-Douglas Debates, and Public Forum and Ethics Bowl debate teams. Others participate in Mock Trial, where they become lawyers and witnesses and act out a given case. In Student Congress, debaters assume the roles of U.S. senators. Extemporaneous Speaking demands awareness from pop culture to international crises. Speech events include Dramatic, Humorous and Duo Interpretation of literature. 

“Last year, we had a team that boiled down ‘Bring It On’—a movie about cheerleaders—into a Duo Interpretation,” Daniels says. “Each student was doing seven or eight characters, and they were able to capture the entire film in ten minutes. It was hilarious.”

The Rewards of Quick Thinking

Daniels and his two assistant debate coaches work nonstop throughout the year, and they have a lot to show for their efforts. Their debaters compete at the highest levels and in 2013, won the National Association for Urban Debate League Championship. 

The benefits of debate, however, go far beyond trophies. “The reward of participation is confidence,” says Daniels. “We take kids who may go unnoticed and get them up to speed so they feel part of the team and the larger community. They develop research, analytic, and dramatic skills. They find their voices.”

Trips to some of the best universities give the students exposure to college life, and debate experience is a significant advantage when it comes to college admission. “These kids are competitive at the top universities,” Daniels says. “Many don’t debate in college but are involved with issues they encountered on the speech and debate team. For the most part, they have been extremely successful when they move on.”

The Sandler Factor

Through his relationship to BCF, Sandler discovered yet another way he could help his beloved program: He established a charitable gift annuity that provided him with income during his lifetime, and now will augment the Fund for Speech and Debate at City College at BCF. 

“One of the things that makes City College speech and debate different from virtually everywhere else in the country is Gil Sandler and what he’s been able to do for us,” Daniels says. In a light-hearted “debate” by two City College students at the fund’s 2008 announcement, Jasmine Thomas ’08 concluded, “We both win because we’ve been able to travel all over the country and compete at the highest levels due to the generosity and relentless fundraising of Mr. Gilbert Sandler. On behalf of our whole team, and those Baltimore City Collegians past and present who have benefited and will benefit from your contributions, thank you."

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